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‘We literally starved ourselves in public.’ For young Philly climate activist, the hunger strike is over but the battle continues

Abby Leedy, a 20-year-old from West Philadelphia, didn't eat for nearly two weeks as she and other activists hoped to force federal climate action.

Abby Leedy, 20, a Philly native who went on a hunger strike for nearly two weeks in an attempt to force federal climate action, pauses outside of the Washington, D.C. church where she and around 50 other activists gathered after confronting U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) by the Wharf Marina in on Thursday.
Abby Leedy, 20, a Philly native who went on a hunger strike for nearly two weeks in an attempt to force federal climate action, pauses outside of the Washington, D.C. church where she and around 50 other activists gathered after confronting U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) by the Wharf Marina in on Thursday.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

WASHINGTON — Abby Leedy grinned and nodded as she listened to her fellow climate activists chant, like a conductor pleased with the rhythm.

It was just after dawn Thursday, and she and about 50 others had just rushed Sen. Joe Manchin as he came off his houseboat along the Potomac River. The West Virginia Democrat — criticized by the activists for blocking major climate legislation — disappeared into a parking garage.

The protesters gathered to await his exit and Leedy raised her normally soft voice: “Pack in. Look powerful!”

It had been more than two days since the 20-year-old from West Philadelphia had ended the hunger strike she and four other activists had launched to call for President Joe Biden and Democratic lawmakers to respond to the urgency of climate change.

She was tired — at one point she sat on the ground to rest — but it felt good to be back on the street. Slight and quick-moving, she sometimes couldn’t be seen above taller heads in the crowd, but everyone quieted whenever she spoke.

“There’s a lot of people in this fight,” Leedy said, her face lighting up. “And next time, there will be more.”

» READ MORE: With Biden's bill at stake, Manchin wavers

The strike reflected a global movement led by young people whose futures are threatened by climate change: Humans must take swift action to limit the earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, scientists agree, to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Leedy had arrived in D.C. more than two weeks earlier with her prayer book, protest sign, and hopes of forcing lawmakers including Manchin to pass Biden’s social spending bill and its climate package.

She and her fellow strikers — Paul Campion, Julia Paramo, Kidus Girma, and Ema Govea, all of the national youth-led climate advocacy organization the Sunrise Movement — drew national attention. Messages of support flowed in on Twitter and passersby wrote prayers on notecards.

The strike had made Leedy feel powerful and “closer to the universe,” she said, but also sent her to the emergency room and posed a risk of organ damage.

When she got to the other side of it this week, she was thinking about what came next.

“I feel angrier at the American government, generally, than I was before I started,” Leedy said Wednesday, her knees pulled to her chest on a sofa in an Airbnb rented by Sunrise. “We literally starved ourselves in public for two weeks, and it both felt like it was really impactful and also made me feel like … there’s something really broken in our democracy.”

Philadelphia roots

Two months ago, Leedy walked over the Walnut Street Bridge the morning after remnants of Hurricane Ida had swept through Philadelphia. The trail below, which she had run so many times, was underwater.

“‘This is bad, but what is it going to be like the next [time]?’” she recalled thinking. “The sea level’s going to rise, the Schuylkill’s going to rise, the Delaware’s going to rise. What does this flood look like 20 years from now? What’s underwater then?”

Leedy’s family moved to Philadelphia from Portland, Ore., when she was 8. She didn’t grow up imagining herself going on a hunger strike outside the White House. But she did grow up hearing her parents talk about inequity and the responsibilities of government and society to take care of people.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania projected to warm 5.9 degrees by 2050, state climate report says

After her environmental science teacher at Central High School invited the Sunrise Movement to speak to the class, Leedy joined. She credits her teachers with giving her the confidence to get involved in organizing.

She became so invested that she delayed college, choosing to work full time with Sunrise. In 2020, she appeared on an episode of Netflix’s Queer Eye, where the show’s hosts renovated a house for Sunrise organizers and coached Leedy on being a confident activist.

Julia Paramo, a 24-year-old from Dallas, saw that episode and was so inspired by “this young, awkward woman doing this thing that she really cared about” that she joined Sunrise.

Both women felt called to join the hunger strike. When organizers first began talking about it — alarmed by Manchin’s holdup of the reconciliation bill — Leedy said she felt it was the right thing to do.

The courage to take the leap came from her strong organizing community, including Sunrise members in Philadelphia, who held a vigil for her last week; the support of her parents; and her Episcopal faith — the conviction that “if there’s God, this is something God would want me to do.”

‘How far we are willing to go’

The strikers’ vigil began as Democrats were negotiating with Manchin — the senator opposed Biden’s emissions-cutting program and other aspects of the social policy package, pointing to potential economic impacts — and continued as world leaders met in Glasgow, Scotland, for COP26, the summit widely seen as a crucial moment in the battle against climate change.

Their starvation, Leedy said, “represents the stakes of the climate crisis to young people — like how serious this is to us, how far we are willing to go to see change happen, to force change to happen.”

The strikers believe their efforts made a difference, citing the $555 billion in climate measures preserved in Biden’s spending bill and an expectation of more executive action.

The White House and Manchin’s office did not respond to requests for comment from The Inquirer. Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president admired the activism and agreed “long-overdue investments in our climate” are needed.

» READ MORE: World leaders dial up doomsday warning to kick-start climate talks

For the Sunrise activists, the strike was galvanizing. Emily Isaacson, who came from Chicago for Thursday’s action, said they had been burned out by national politics, but watching the strike provided renewed clarity.

Ed Brown, an 18-year-old from West Philadelphia, spent the last two weeks in D.C.

“The hunger strike meant to me that we are going to do everything we can to make sure that [catastrophic] future doesn’t happen,” said Brown, who met Leedy when she helped him start a Sunrise hub at Masterman School. “She was called to the moment to really put her body on the line [and] waste away to show the world the suffering that is in store for the entire world.”

‘A more escalated climate movement’

On Wednesday, Leedy sat cross-legged on the living-room floor of the Airbnb, a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Leaning over a coffee table with a pen in hand, she guided a meeting between a half-dozen fellow activists.

On the wall hung a schedule; a list of options the activists had made when deciding whether to end the strike; potential protest sign slogans targeting Manchin. Sunrise organizers bustled in and out, and Leedy, in leggings and a sweatshirt, collaborated with friends and planned for a training.

She also did something that still felt novel: took a lunch break. In the rental’s kitchen, Leedy popped open a can of Campbell’s tomato soup and got approval from health monitor Nina Eichner to make a grilled cheese sandwich with cheddar, cream cheese, and tomatoes.

Coming off a hunger strike means a limited number of calories each day, eventually working up to 2,400. It also means increased risk of an eating disorder, so Eichner was counting her calories.

Another Sunrise friend, who’d just arrived in D.C., came into the kitchen and tearfully hugged Leedy, half-jokingly saying, “You’re alive.” Isaacson came in singing a protest song.

They called Leedy an amazing leader.

“I want her to live in a world where she [doesn’t have to be] spending her early 20s doing s— like this,” Isaacson said. “She feels forced to make the choice to do these hard things to show leadership because our leaders are not. And her moral clarity brings her to that.”

New hope

With the strike over, Leedy hoped its influence would stretch beyond this season. While it was a “big swing” at winning climate action while the Democrats are in power, she also imagined it could be the movement’s first step toward activism on the scale of the civil rights movement.

“I hope it is, in some ways, a moment when we look back as a small turning point toward a more escalated climate movement in the United States,” she said.

More immediately, the group was shifting its attention squarely to Manchin, whose support for the modified reconciliation bill still appeared uncertain.

That brought Leedy to Thursday.

When the riverside demonstration was over, she fired up the group to march to the Capitol but quickly nixed the plan after realizing it was a 45-minute walk — the still-recovering strikers couldn’t push their bodies. As the protesters regrouped at a church, Leedy sat at a patio table so Eichner could check her blood pressure.

She was on a high from the power of the movement she’d felt at the wharf. She was also exhausted and on the verge of tears. She realized she needed to eat and lie down.

Squinting a little, the morning sun filtering onto her face through pillars in front of the church, Leedy got ready to join friends for breakfast at one of the picnic tables.

“I feel really hopeful,” she said. She gave a nod. “I feel hopeful.”